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Biden’s Climate Win Strains Already-Stretched EPA Workforce (1)

Aug. 8, 2022, 4:39 PMUpdated: Aug. 8, 2022, 8:42 PM

The expected passage of the Inflation Reduction Act is going to strain an EPA workforce that’s already under pressure to carry out the mandates in last November’s infrastructure bill, observers said Monday.

The additional workload raises questions about the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to cope without quickly bringing on many more employees, according to Stan Meiburg, a former EPA acting deputy administrator.

“All of this activity creates more demands on an agency that has been struggling to get enough budget to carry out its prior functions even before this happened,” said Meiburg, now executive director at Wake Forest University’s Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability.

Many other federal agencies “are seeking to ramp hiring simultaneously to meet bipartisan infrastructure law requirements, and this will only add to that talent pool draw,” agreed John Miller, a former branch chief at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s enforcement office and now a director at Cowen Inc.'s Washington Research Group.

Under the climate provisions in the bill (H.R. 5376) that the Senate passed on Sunday, billions of dollars in new funding would flow into the EPA for work on many fronts, including a program to reduce methane emissions from the natural gas sector, an effort to roll out zero-emission technology, a program to cut air pollution in facilities like ports, and community investments in environmental justice.

Static Staffing

The EPA’s staffing levels essentially have been static since President Joe Biden took office. The agency reported 14,581 employees in fiscal 2022, a figure that’s almost 20% less than the EPA’s high-water mark under the Clinton administration.

Some 1,000 employees left the EPA during the Trump administration, and many others are set to retire in coming years.

The agency’s greatest needs are likely to be technical personnel on air emissions and fuels to help set parameters for new tax credits and issue grants for monitoring and emissions reduction programs, Miller said.

Other areas of need will include climate change scientists and environmental engineers at the regional level, as well as grants specialists to help communities apply for grants and review submissions, said Jacob Carter, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy and a former EPA postdoctoral research fellow.

Marie Owens Powell, president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 238, which represents EPA employees, said the “monumental” amount of new work expected to be put on the EPA’s plate “will require an even more expert and experienced EPA workforce than ever before.”

Last year’s infrastructure law dumped billions of dollars worth of projects on the agency. They included the development of a clean school bus program, a plan to upgrade water and sewer infrastructure across the nation, and an effort to help water utilities address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

In the meantime, the EPA still has to produce new volume rules for the renewable fuel standard by the end of the year, and has committed to multipart clean truck, clean power plant, and light-duty vehicle emissions rulemakings in 2023, Miller observed.

Nicole Cantello, president of AFGE Local 704 and an EPA attorney in Chicago, said agency employees are feeling “beleaguered” by the sheer volume of work they’re already having to take on—but also “so thankful it’s being done.”

Action to Boost Ranks

Three important players—EPA senior leadership, the agency’s biggest union, and Congress—have all been working to increase staffing.

Within the agency, EPA Administrator Michael Regan has put a retention plan in place. Separately, Zealan Hoover, senior adviser to Regan, told Bloomberg Law in January that the agency is giving its hiring managers more support to hire people through non-competitive processes. Competitive hiring requires candidates to go through a lengthy testing and review process.

The AFGE has also repeatedly pushed for more help. In its ongoing contract talks with the agency, the union is asking for a more generous career ladder to help employees advance professionally and resist other job offers.

“I’m super worried about that,” Cantello said, noting that several staffers are being forced to leave because they’re maxing out in their careers at the EPA.

The union’s opening bargaining proposal asks for the creation of an upward mobility program that offers “paths for employees to pursue opportunities and allow successful crossover opportunities for growth as offered by career ladder positions.”

Powell called on the EPA on Monday to “act quickly to put the right staff in place” to implement the climate bill, and to “provide them with the support and working conditions they need to accomplish the critical task in front of them.”

Direction From Congress

In Congress, a fiscal 2023 spending bill rolled out by Senate Democrats in July would boost the agency’s budget by 11.3%. As part of that measure, the Senate Appropriations Committee called on the EPA to “prioritize efforts to streamline hiring, support retention, and manage the erosion of expertise stemming from retirement of senior staff.”

But federal hiring is still a slow, cumbersome process. The EPA also must compete with the private sector for high-qualified people in specialized roles, such as chemical engineers, hydrologists, and financial experts, Meiburg said.

In some cases, the demands aren’t likely to be overly burdensome because the money will flow into existing EPA programs, Carter said. For example, the bill provides more funds for greenhouse gas reporting programs and reductions, which the agency already has in place.

The climate bill also sends a signal to those in the job market that will help draw more talented people into the field, Meiburg said.

“People are excited—young people,” he said. “There’s clearly a tremendous amount of interest. People do see this as a moment in time.”

(Updates with additional reporting throughout.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com